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Ágnes Nemes Nagy was one of Europe’s greatest 20th century poets. A Hungarian,
she lived and wrote through the War, its aftermath, and the subsequent Communist
takeover, dying in 1991. Her work is rightly described as monumental. It’s not
that her poems are long or unwieldy, but that they rise up, tower high, even the
shorter ones. Szirtes has done a magnificent job bringing these poems into
English, something he spent 16 years doing, on and off. He’s also written an
informative introduction which looks at Nemes Nagy’s life and work as well as
the issues involved in translating another poet’s work.
The poems in the collection are arranged chronologically. One of the first, ‘Female Landscape,’ addresses the subject of the female body, but Nemes Nagy moves away from stereotyped descriptions into something more fantastic. The body reminds the poet of a place where children ride mosquitoes, where tortoises are being taught, “and thought flowers from my shoulder / with its stout unfurling bud.”
In the short poems of ‘Journal’ ‘Nightmare’ stands out: “From a world of rotting rags and clout / the marsh-light of cold reason flashes out, / plays on the corpse, the softening skull beneath, / and illuminates its naked row of teeth.”
‘No Wish’ sees the poem’s narrator cleaving to life, although the years have stacked up against them. The thirst to live is still there, in spite of the bitterness years and experience have brought.
In ‘Balaton,’ among the descriptions of nature and the landscape of the poem, a girl floats in the lake, among the reeds, dead.
Statues appear in Nemes Nagy’s work over and over across the years this collection encompasses. In an essay she wrote as an introduction to a translation, an essay included at the end of ‘The Night of Akhenaton,’ she talks about the importance of objects in her poems. Previously in her essay, she wrote: “I think it is the duty of the poet to obtain citizenship for an increasing horde of nameless emotions.” Objects are a means of transmitting the unknown and the nameless: “… a geyser, a branch, the fragment of a statue, a tram… may bring with them memories of war… or the experience of nature…” The statues in Nemes Nagy’s poems are mysterious, heavy, implacable. In ‘Statues I Carried’ a perfect example of her lyrical simplicity which still reaches up like a mountain, or stands iconic, like a statue, she creates the image of someone carrying statues on board a boat, from where they will be taken to “the island where they should stand. / Between nose and ear there were ninety / degrees, measured precisely, / with no other sign of their rank. / Statues I carried on board, / and so I sank.” The second last line is also the first line of the poem and is repeated again in the third. There’s no need for a great long description, the repetition, the lyricism and mysterious nature of the objects themselves are what make this poem work.
‘From The Notebooks of Akhenaton’ deals with the Pharaoh who made himself a god, but also an idol, a statue: “heaven should be of rough cement.” The statue will “sit, stare, eternally in state.”
Then there’s ‘When’ - “In carving myself a god, I kept in mind / to choose the hardest stone that I could find. / Harder than flesh and not given to wincing: / its consolation should appear convincing.”
It’s tempting to speculate on the repeating theme of statues. It could be argued that in the Communist Bloc Stalin was something of a statue, an iconic figure for the population, along with other Communist leaders. But the lack of dating on the poems makes it difficult to see whether the interest in statues precedes this time. (The lack of dates is the collection’s only weakness.) Then again, the Nazis too reached for iconic stature, not only in the form of Hitler, but in their harking back to ancient Rome, and their desire for a one thousand year Reich. The war would have been a major event in Nemes Nagy’s life. As she says in her essay, “war: the fundamental experience of my generation.”
Like the statues, death too haunts the collection. In the dead girl floating in the lake, in poems like ‘No Wish,’ ‘Nightmare’ and in ‘Revenant,’ a beautiful and lyrical evocation of someone, now a ghost, in the place where they once lived.
‘Night Oak’ is one of the most memorable poems. A walker out at night sees an oak tree in pursuit. The description of the tree is wonderful as it moves to catch up, before leaning against a lamp post and pushing back its hair, where birds sleep in their nests. But the tree returns to the hole in the ground.
There are prose poems included, and later poems, as well as the informative essays by Szirtes and Nemes Nagy herself. Szirtes really has to be credited for providing such exquisite translations. A poet himself, his own collection has been published recently.
Reproduced with permission
Kara Kellar Bell is a film and media graduate from the West of Scotland, with a passion for European novels, French films, silent cinema, and Brazilian music (everything from Daniela Mercury and other pop stars through to bossa nova). As a writer, she likes to have room to move around creatively, so she’s not located in one genre. She writes realism and also stories of a more fantastic nature, usually grounded to some extent in the real world. She also takes delight in writing across the sexual spectrum, and as a bisexual, considers it important to remind people that things are not always black and white, either/or, in sexuality or in gender. For a selection of Kara’s writing on the Showcase section of this site, click here
|THE NIGHTS OF AKHENATON
Agnes Nemes Nagy
(Bloodaxe Books 2004)
Reviewed by: Kara Kellar Bell
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